CGAP Pays Tribute to Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, K.C.M.G., the Founder of BRAC and Former CGAP Board Member

Abed was instrumental in shaping CGAP and remains an inspiration in combating poverty

WASHINGTON, D.C. December 21, 2019 - Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, K.C.M.G., the founder of BRAC and a former CGAP board member, passed away December 20, 2019 in Bangladesh.

Photo of Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, KCMG
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, KCMG, 1936-2019. Photo credit: BRAC.

Abed’s contributions to fighting poverty and shaping global development over the past 50 years are unparalleled. Beginning in the early 1970s shortly after Bangladesh won independence, he built BRAC into the largest and most effective non-governmental organization in the world by some measures. Abed served on many international boards and commissions, including as a member of CGAP’s policy advisory group from 1998 to 2005. He was instrumental in shaping CGAP into a truly global organization from its early beginnings as a microfinance resource for northern donors.

CGAP CEO Greta Bull said his immense contributions will be deeply missed. “Abed dedicated his life to improving the lives of poor people, challenging us with innovation solutions that continue to shape the development agenda. His life work, leadership example and the tangible results he delivered around the globe will remain an inspiration for CGAP and our partners as we persevere in combating poverty in the years ahead.”

BRAC’s work in Bangladesh focused on improving the lives of poor people, especially in rural areas, through a wide range of social and economic development initiatives, including its microfinance programs that today span all of Bangladesh. BRAC’s direct contributions as well as its significant influence on development policies contributed much to Bangladesh’s journey from one of the poorest countries in the 1970s to an aspiring middle-income country today.

Abed’s strengths lay in fostering a learning culture in BRAC that practiced taking risks, always innovating and failing fast while moving on quickly. He practiced human-centered design and rapid prototyping decades before they became fashionable. This culture was inherent in BRAC’s social and economic development work, as well as the many businesses it launched. Abed pursued ideas by leading with action and tangible results.

Abed had a humble demeanor but pushed his own organization and others to be ambitious. He liked to say that “small may be beautiful but scale is necessary.” By the 1990s many BRAC programs reached every corner of Bangladesh. At one time, this included tens of thousands of free, one-room primary schools for children unreached by government schools. Later, BRAC filled a need for high quality secondary education, and in 2001 set up BRAC University, which today has nearly 10,000 students.

Abed is widely recognized as one of the most influential people in the world of financial inclusion of the past 50 years. For him, financial services were one more tool that needed to be scaled in concert with other programs for the purpose of helping the poor. BRAC’s microfinance program in Bangladesh started in the early 1970s and grew into a leading program serving 5 million poor customers, including some 400,000 running microenterprises. The profits from microfinance to this day are plowed back into growth and used to subsidize BRAC’s social services.

In 2003, BRAC Bank was launched to focus on small and medium-sized enterprises (SME), a segment other banks had yet to touch. Today it is one of the strongest performing private banks in Bangladesh and retains its SME focus. Abed’s antennae were always attuned to what he could learn from others. So soon after M-PESA was launched in Kenya in 2008, he began to incubate something similar in Bangladesh. This led to the creation of bKash in 2011, which has grown into one of the largest mobile payments businesses in the world with 30 million customers.

Seeing evidence that some financial services and programs were not benefiting the ultra poor, Abed pushed BRAC to innovate. Through its learning approach, BRAC redoubled its efforts building what came to be more widely known as the “Graduation” approach, a multi-dimensional intervention that includes consumption safety nets, coaching and access to finance for up to 36 months to create sustainable livelihoods for families living in extreme poverty. CGAP and its partners helped to test the Graduation approach in eight countries and to build a wider development agenda. This joined-up effort has helped translate the BRAC innovation into 99 adaptations in 43 countries today.

In 2002, Abed began to also establish direct BRAC work in other countries, beginning with BRAC Afghanistan in 2002 and soon expanding into 10 more countries, especially in Africa. Translating BRAC outside of Bangladesh was hard work. With successes also came some failures, but despite setbacks Abed remained steadfast that the international operations should learn and persevere.

CGAP is profoundly grateful to Abed for his many contributions to addressing global poverty and advancing financial inclusion. We extend our deepest condolences to his family.